Sunday, April 24, 2022

Friendly Persuasion (1956)


                  I ended a string of Macaroni Combat movies by watching the exact opposite – “Friendly Persuasion”.  It is based on the novel The Friendly Persuasion by Jessamyn West.  West, a Quaker, based the novel on her Quaker experiences and family tales from the 19th Century.  The novel covers forty years in the lives of the family, but her treatment narrowed it down to a year during the Civil War.  She served as the technical adviser.  It was directed by William Wyler (“The Best Years of Our Lives”).  The movie was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Anthony Perkins), Song (“Friendly Persuasion – Thee I Love”), Art Direction, and Sound Recording.  It famously was also nominated for Adapted Screenplay, but was disqualified because it had not screen credit for the screenplay because it was written by the blacklisted Michael Wilson.  It was a moderate hit.  It was originally supposed to be a Frank Capra film starring Bing Crosby and Jean Arthur.

                “Friendly Persuasion” is a comedy/drama set in southern Indiana in 1862.  The Birdwells are a Quaker family who live an bucolic farm life.  The movie immediately establishes that Quakers use the words thy, thee, and thou a Hades of a lot.  The biggest conflict for these Quakers during the Civil War is Jess’ (Gary Cooper) Sunday buggy races with his frenemy Sam (Robert Middleton).  The duels occur every Sunday as the neighbors go to their churches.  In an effective intercutting, Sam’s Methodist service is hymnful and takes advantage of Technicolor, whereas the Quaker meeting is virtually black and white and silent other than the occasional testimony by a Friend.  One young lady gets the courage to stand up and asks God to give her the courage to not wear earrings.  The pin-drop proceedings are interrupted by the arrival of a wounded veteran who urges the congregation to support the war effort.  He emphasizes that they should not let others do their fighting for them and they should defend their homes.  Those pesky Rebels might someday be on their doorsteps.  The Quakers greet the call to patriotism and self-survival stonily.  Having established the situation and dynamic, the movie proceeds to character development.

                Jess is a believer, but his wife Eliza (Dorothy McGuire) is a true believer and a minister to boot.  Their daughter Mattie (Phyllis Love) is focused on one thing -  a marriage to Sam’s hunky soldier son Gard (Peter Mark Richman).  Their oldest son Josh (Anthony Perkins in his second role) is not rebellious and does not chafe at his parents’ pacifism.  And then they have a Disneyesque tyke called Little Jess whose job is to be a pest. He has a running war with the family goose (another Disney nod).  They also have a runaway slave named Purdy (Richard Hale) who is like a member of the family.  For most of the movie, the war has little impact on them, other than the occasional sneer from locals.  For instance, a trip to the county fair is used not only to give us an excellent and witty taste of Americana, but to check off some of the temptations Quakers had to avoid (gambling, dancing, music, wrestling) and so Josh can be bullied by belligerents.  At the shooting gallery, the elder Jess proves that if humans were squirrels, the Rebels would be in trouble.  He also proves to be a closet culture-lover by purchasing an organ unbeknownst to his holier than thou spouse.  Where he has been able to hide his passion-filled races on Sunday, he finds it impossible to hide an organ.  This leads to a marriage crisis that is not exactly an allegory of the war between the states.  It’s in this atmosphere of a 1950’s sitcom that the war finally intrudes in the form of a raid by Rebel cavalry.  Josh will have to decide whether to defy his parents and bow to peer pressure (and the smoke from nearby farms).  Will big Jess drop his plow under extreme provocation?  Will little Jess donate the goose to the Rebels?

                I was skeptical about this movie as a war movie and it does start with one of the least war movie songs ever.  However, it turned out to clearly be in the genre and although predominantly a home front tale, it does have a nifty, if brief, battle scene.  It can best be described as a family drama with some humor thrown in.  You would expect the humor to be trite, but the film actually has a quite a few grins and no groans.  It does tend to be groaningly saccharine.  There are no villains.  The local Protestants may be blunt and a bit bullying, but they do have a leg to stand on and could easily represent a mid-50s majority of Americans with regards to the Cold War.  With that analogy established, the movie does not mean to present the Quakers as the equivalent of communist sympathizers.  The Birdwells are positively portrayed.  Even Eliza, who starts off as an insufferable Jesus freak, warms up a bit.  Her husband goes from being hen-pecked to a traditional 50s dad.  He chooses music over momma knowing full well that no female is going to stay in the barn when Gary Cooper is in the house (or chopping wood bare-chested).  This leads to a humorous exchange with Sam where Sam figures some canoodling in the hay restored their relationship.  That’s about as PG as the film gets.  

                 The movie is not aiming for a realistic depiction of the Civil War in a border state.  It is not the tearjerker that the similar “Shenandoah” is.  The skirmish near the end can be likened to an incident where the Indiana Home Guard attempted to block a raid by the infamous Confederate John Hunt Morgan.  Morgan’s much larger force of seasoned warriors brushed the militia aside and occupied the local town with looting ensuing.  Undoubtedly, some heavy-handed foraging also occurred on any farms the unit passed through.  The movie has a rabble of rebels taking advantage of Eliza’s hospitality, but the Johnny Rebs are gentlemen.  I doubt Morgan’s boys could be described that way.

                The movie is nicely entertaining and holds up well for a movie that is firmly of its time.  Wyler traded humor for tension.  Some of the humor is of the running gag variety.  There are three races to church and there is the running battle between ‘lil Jess and the goose.  Throw in big Jess’ attempts to salvage something of his lay pleasures while being married to Mother Theresa.  Cooper is fine in a role that he did not enjoy.  He did not want to play the father of adult children and was upset that his character was not a man of action.  He also was opposed to playing opposite McGuire, who he considered to be an inferior actor.  He may have been right about that because her Eliza is wooden.  Perkins is a revelation, however.  He became the successor to James Dean because of this movie.  He has a show-stealing skirmish scene that involves the 6th Commandment.  It being a Wyler film, the movie is very well made.  It was Wyler’s first color feature film and the movie is vibrant. It is a beautiful film.  The soundtrack matches the mood well.  Unfortunately, the movie does not reach the heights of “The Best Years of Our Lives” because of its unrealistic depiction of life in a border state during a civil conflict.  It is marred by a  simplistic ending.  It is a must-see if you want to see an honest to goodness movie about pacifism that is not anti-war.  That must have been hard to pull off and still be entertaining.


Friday, April 22, 2022

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE: The Frogmen (1951)


                        Have you enjoyed movies about the Navy SEALs?  Did you watch “SEAL Team” on CBS?  You might want to check out the father of the subgenre on YouTube.  “The Frogmen” is a 1951 black and white WWII movie.  Many SEALs have acknowledged that the movie influenced their desire to join the SEALs.  In an episode of “SEAL Team”, Sonny mentions that he wanted to be a frogman when growing up.  The movie was directed by Lloyd Bacon.  It was his only war movie.  His helming shows that the movie was not considered to be a major production, and yet it was popular and is still beloved.  The movie is a tribute to the United States Navy Underwater Demolition Teams which conducted reconnaissance and cleared underwater obstacles before amphibious invasions.  Although they participated in D-Day, they were more involved in the Pacific Theater.  Bacon was given a nice cast headed by Richard Widmark.  Widmark made “Halls of Montezuma” the same year.  He starred in several good war movies.  He is one of my favorite actors.

                        The movie leads with a claim that it is a true story based on various incidents that occurred in the latter part of WWII.  Underwater Demolition Team 4 is chilling on deck of a transport and gets into a tiff with the ship’s crew.  Lt. Commander Lawrence (Widmark) is a by the book disciplinarian who has replaced the popular, now deceased previous leader.  The dynamic is very similar to “Flying Leathernecks” with Dana Andrews playing the Robert Ryan role.  Speaking of other movies, the ship’s captain (Gary Merrill) plays Davenport (Merrill) to Widmark’s Savage (“Twelve O'Clock High”).  When Lawrence chews out his team, pointing out they don’t deserve special treatment, Chief Flanagan (Andrews) leads the grumbling.  How dare frogmen be treated like sailors!  The dysfunction is ramped up after Lawrence makes the command decision to leave Flanagan and another survivor of a blown-up boat behind in order to get valuable information back to the ship.  He doesn’t seem very concerned with the dead men because he isn’t.  The whole unit wants to transfer.  Sound familiar?  If your answer is yes (and if it’s no), you know these heroes will stay to win the war and Lawrence will earn respect and become more empathetic.  To get to this resolution, we get scenes involving leaving a welcoming sign on the beach for the Marines, disarming a torpedo that inconveniently penetrates into the sick bay where heartthrob Jeffrey Hunter is laid up, and blowing up a submarine pen.  This rousing finale includes a vicious knife fight underwater.

                        This was the first time I have seen this movie and I have seen hundreds of war movies.  I am pretty ashamed of that, but excited by the fact that after 900 posts there are still good war movies I have not seen yet.  And some of them are on YouTube.  “The Frogmen” is much better than I expected.  It has a very good cast.  Besides the actors I mentioned already, we also get Harvey Lembeck and Robert Wagner.  They are given manly dialogue and put in manly situations.  The film does not bother with a mushy romantic subplot.  In fact, there are no women in the movie.  They do a lot of scuba diving and the underwater cinematography is excellent.  Those scenes are done without music which was a wise move.  It adds to the suspense.  The conflict between Lawrence and his men builds to a grand last mission and a satisfying conclusion.  As far as the “true story” claim, I can see where all of the scenes occurred at one time or another, just not all to the same unit.  The movie does not specify which island they are involved with, but it has to be Okinawa because their previous commander died at Iwo Jima.  The real Underwater Demolition Team 4 did serve in the Pacific and participated in the invasions of the Philippines, Saipan, Guam, and Okinawa.  They did have a boat blown up and they did leave a welcoming sign on a beach on Guam. 

                        If you have seen a lot of war movies (and if you haven’t), you have seen all of this before, except it’s underwater.  Don’t let the familiarity scare you away.  The movie is very entertaining, especially if you are a teenage boy.  You might even go and enlist in the Navy to become a SEAL.  They probably won’t let you in if you haven’t seen it.

GRADE  =  B+

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

POS? Under Heavy Fire (2001)


                “Under Heavy Fire” is a Vietnam War movie by Sidney Furie (the “Iron Eagle” films).  It was the second in his Vietnam trilogy with the first being “The Boys in Company C”.  If you want to be one of the very few people on Earth to complete the trilogy, the third is “The Veteran”.  An alternate title for “Under Heavy Fire” is “”Going Back”.  Believe it or not, the movie was first shown at Cannes.

                The movie opens in Vietnam in 1968.  Friendly artillery fire kills some Americans outside a village and Capt. Ramsey (Casper Van Dien) is blamed even though he clearly did not call in the strike.  So, the movie comes out the chute with a WTF moment.  We flash forward to the five survivors returning to Vietnam years later as part of a reconciliation tour promoted by the Vietnamese government.  The group’s visit is covered by a reporter named Kathleen (Carre Otis).  When Ramsey joins them, it is awkward.  They make the cinematic decision to go back to the village to reenact the incident.  The movie jumps between the present time tour and flash backs to traumatic moments during the war.  One of those involves a briskly paced rescue from a Viet Cong tunnel.  Another involves the squad in Hue for the battle.  They capture a building in a well-done scene.  There Is an atrocity which pits the team against Ramsey.  Finally, we have the village incident.  Whoever thought reliving that moment was clearly delusional, or a script writer.  It has predictable results if you predicted that the men would all freak out in a PTSD orgy.

                “Under Heavy Fire” starts with an interesting premise and you do want to find out what exactly happened.  The flashback format works well.  However, it concludes with a horrendously bad scene that reminds you that your first inkling was correct.  Before that, it is a fairly competent film.  The combat is above average with some POV to go with the obligatory slo-mo.         It is surprisingly unpredictable, except for Casper Van Dien, I mean Ramsey, going to bed with the female reporter.  Casper is truly the draw here and not just for the female reporter.  He gets no competition from the no-name cast.  That’s probably what his agent promised him.   And an all expanses paid vacation in Vietnam.  The movie had full cooperation from the Vietnamese government which saw it as a chance to change its image. There is some local color to humanize the Vietnamese people.  In that respect, the movie is the polar opposite of “The Green Berets”.  It makes the point that the Marines were taught to hate the Vietnamese.  That was tragic because they really were good people, according to this movie.  Go to Hell, John Wayne!

                Should you watch it?  If you are a Casper fan, of course.  If you are determined to see every Vietnam War movie ever made, sure.  If you want to complete the epic Furie trilogy, go right ahead.  If you want to get drunk by taking a drink every time Ramsey smokes a cigarette, enjoy.  Otherwise, you can skip this one.